anarchy archives


About Us

Contact Us

Other Links

Critics Corner


The Cynosure

  Michael Bakunin
  William Godwin
  Emma Goldman
  Peter Kropotkin
  Errico Malatesta
  Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
  Elisée Reclus
  Max Stirner
  Murray Bookchin
  Noam Chomsky
  Bright but Lesser Lights
  Cold Off The Presses
  Anarchist History
  Worldwide Movements
  First International
  Paris Commune
  Haymarket Massacre
  Spanish Civil War
  Art and Anarchy
  Education and Anarchy
  Anarchist Poets
  Music and Anarchy
This article appears in Anarchy Archives with the permission of the author. From: Harrowsmith, 1983

A Return to First Principles

Comparing notes with Murray Bookchin,
rebel with the best of causes

By Thomas Pawlick

Recorded theme music. The mellow voice of an announcer:

Ladies and gentlemen, our last guest is one of the world's foremost authorities on the city and has written numerous books on the subject. A self-styled anarchist, he believes the future of urban society has never looked grimmer...

Theme music rises. Applause. A round little man in his 60s, wearing blue twill slacks and a dark blue work shirt open at the collar, steps onstage and walks to a swivel chair opposite CITY TV talk show host Morton Shulman, who is grinning. "My God," a jewel-encrusted woman in the audience giggles as Bookchin sits down. "He looks like one of my tenants!"

Indeed. Tieless in Taliored City, slightly stooped, shirt pocket stuffed full of ballpoint pens, like a warehouse clerk or the man behind the counter at an auto parts store, Bookchin does not project an air of affluence -- and affluence is what this audience craves. Encouraging affluence, reassuring affluence. Affluence in the teeth of adversity.

Gathered in convention at Toronto's plush Harbor Castle Hilton Hotel, soaking up strong drink, rich food and the animal zing of close proximity to hundreds of fellow members of the Ontario Real Estate Association -- "Building on Yesterday for Tomorrow" -- they have come together to hear "President Bob, Chairman Peter," and other speakers, praised for their "truly aggressive" smiles, breathe hope into an industry made moribund by the curse of legalized usury. The taping of the Shulman show is a convention extra, but inevitably reflects the tensions of its studio audience. Defiant, they have dressed for dinner on the Titanic.

Bookchin, seated, folds his hands and gazes benignly across the prop desk at Shulman, who has asked panelists to focus on the theme "Gimme shelter -- Why can't I own a home?" A red, white and blue flyer handed to spectators on entering the auditorium has warned that this is "confrontation television," and Shulman has already engaged in acrimonious debate with three other panel members. Now, however, it seems time for a bit of comic relief, which is apparently the real reason Bookchin has been included. An error in judgment.

Shulman (laughing) -- You are an anarchist?

Bookchin (frank) -- Oh yes. I am an anarchist, but I don't throw bombs.

Shulman (gleeful, anticipating easy prey) -- Ah! That's what I was going to ask you. But what does an anarchist know about housing?

Bookchin -- A great deal. We regard housing as homes. We regard real estate as land...

The merriment in Shulman's eyes increases. This is going to be fun.

Homes and land. These are things about which Murray Bookchin does, in fact, know a great deal. But his interests don't stop there, nor do they balk at any city limit. The announcer had it wrong. What this stubbornly principled veteran of the public arena has to say applies to the country as well as the city, to the natural world and its unnatural counterparts alike.

He is an ecologist, fighting to prevent the destruction of the environment, a social critic anxious "to see the idea of community recover," a political theorist and defender of local self-government. But abolve all his a a radical, a dogged, irritatingly consistent raidcal who insists on asking why before he asks how. As such, he is a walking antidote to proponents of "alternative energy" so fascinated by the technical details of building the perfect solar collector that they fail to notice when government or industry buys them out; to a homestead movement so absorbed by the minutiae of the barnyard, so busy dissecting chicken dung, that often it cannot remmeber why it went back to the land; to the kind of counterculture easily degenerates into New Age faddism.

Not all of Bookchin's ideas have reached a mass audience, and even among the avant-garde he is frequently misunderstood -- a situation for which Bookchin himself may be partly to blame. He refuses to compromise for the sake of popularity and is so unassuming, so bluntly ordinary on the surface that it is easy to miss what goes on behind the jovial Jewish Santa Claus exterior.

Inside, there is a considerable amount of fire and, without doubt, of pain. His beliefs have earned him bitter enemies on the left and the right. His first book, Our Synthetic Environment (1961), anticipated -- some believe surpassed -- Rachel Carson's Silent Spring as a pioneer expose of the environmental dangers of industrial society. The Limits of the City and Toward an Ecological Society, published subsequently, have become virtual cult books among certain groups of ecologists and reformers who agree with Bookchin that: "If we don't do the impossible, we will be faced with the unthinkable. Utopia...has become a necessity." But the orthodox see him as an enemy, lumped in the company of outlanders. Bookchin has never been a movement celebrity.

He was born in New York, in another era. "The New York I grew up in was surrounded by nature," he reminisces, relaxing in his hotel room the night before the televised debate. He has just finished eating a hearty meal, topped off with a rich and gooey pastry. Reclining in bed, head propped up on his elbow, he speaks into the turning spools of a tape recorder with the strong accent of the Bronx enriching his words.

"I was born in 1921, and they were just building up. Farms still surrounded New York and the dwellings that I was to live in through childhood. We had large spaces, open area which was covered by buildings. I could walk in about 20 minutes to the northern part of the Bronx -- they call it the south Bronx now but it was really the north Bronx -- and I could reach Italian neighborhoods where they had gardens, and goats. You could go out to Brooklyn and Queens and see farmland, see orchards, and they were not polluted. You could swim in the waterways. In those classic movies like Dead End, where you see kids swimming in the East River, that was a very common thing."

Visions of Mickey Rooney with a shoeshine box, standing on a street corner, of James Cagney, growing up tough and handy with his fists, dominating the rackets while his pugnosed boyhood chum, Father Pat O'Brien, watches with sad eyes. But that part was in the future....

"We even had virgin forests." Bookchin recalls. "We had a few acres of timber still left from colonial times that had never been cut and I used to hang around there. My parents were agrarian people. They were not born in cities. They were originally from Russia. My father owned a farm there. This was at the time when Alexander, the Russian Czar, permitted Russian Jews to acquire land. Then they came to America, and I was the first generation of my family to be raised in a city.

"It was a time of movements, when the workers' movements began, the classical kind of socialism that's depicted in movies like Reds. My parents joined the Industrial Workers of the World...."

The old IWW?

"The old IWW. My mother used to see Big Bill Hayward around. There was intense political activity -- battles. I can remember when New York was a thousand villages, not one city. It was an immigrant population. As a kid I had to know more than one language, because everyone around you spoke one or another foreign language. I hardly knew anyone in New York who was born in New York. The Italian kids all knew their parents' language, like in the Godfather, where Al Pacino speaks in Sicilian.

"It was in many ways a preindustrial world, where people were obliged to be imaginative, to fall back on their own resources. We didn't have television, so we did a lot of storytelling. And without telephones the only way you knew if someone was home was to go and visit him. We had to have hang-outs. You had to know when people were prepared to be around, to talk, so street corners and parks became hang-outs. There were spots that were ours, our turf...."

Focuses of community?

"Exactly. We'd play stickball in the street. We didn't have cars all over the place. A car was something you hung onto the bumper of. If you took a car ride, they'd all holler and wave out of the windows. I mean, one out of 10 people I knew in my life at that time had a car. And airplanes? They flew low. It almost felt like you could reach up and take them right out of the sky. There were zeppelins and balloons and the elevated trains...."

An ecosystem. A richly varied ecosystem. As energetic and resilient as the life of a rain forest?

"Precisely. And I miss it. I frankly miss it."

And today?

"Except for the Hispanics, New York is totally homogenized, one culture, and the neighborhoods that I lived in have been gutted by fires, burned out completely. The poor live on the sidewalks. They sleep in doorways. When I walk down the streets of New York I feel fear. Not companionship, which is what I should feel, what one should feel when one is in any kind of community."

This is where Bookchin's vision really begins, the source from which it flows: the remembered country of his childhood, wealthy with contrast, with diversity, with life -- now "homogenized," dehumanized and thereby impoverished.

He writes:

The horrendous crime of the prevailing social order and its industry is that it is undoing the complexity of the biosphere...turning soil into sand, forests into lumber, and land into concrete...working against the thrust of animal and plant evolution over the past billion years, a thrust which has been to colonize almost every niche on the planet with variegated life forms.

And again:

A society based on production for the sake of production is inherently anti-ecological.... As cities continue to grow cancerously over the land, as complex materials are turned into simple materials, as diversity disappears in the maw of a synthetic environment composed of glass, bricks, mortar, metals and machines, the complex food chains on which we depend for the health of our soil, for the integrity of our oceans and atmosphere and for the physiological viability of our beings will become ever more simple. Literally, the system in its endless devouring of nature will reduce the entire biosphere to the fragile simplicity of our desert and arctic biomes. We will be reversing the process of organic evolution which has differentiated flora and fauna into increasingly complex forms and relationships, thereby creating a simpler and less stable world of life.

The consequences of this appalling regression are predictable enough in the long run - the biosphere will become so fragile that it will eventually collapse from the standpoint of human survival needs.

Just as the cities collapse socially.

Leaning forward in his Toronto hotel room, his eyes intense, Bookchin says: "The most devastating tendency right now, not just in natural ecology but in social ecology, has been the simplification of social life. We have broken down - for all its failures and weaknesses - the extended family. We've broken down neighborhoods; we've broken down the idea that we are part of something. In the cities, we don't know the people who live next door to us. We hear their quarrels through our walls, and yet we turn a deaf ear to the fact that we're really part of another kind of ecosystem, which is the human one and it's called community."

Two breakdowns, two simplifications which feed on each other, creating a circle so vicious it turns into a vortex of destruction. Caught in it, individuals are rendered helpless, their life supports vulnerable.

"What ties people together now are bureaucrats, professionals," Bookchin continues. "They have been given the control and are the substitutes for what used to be elderly people who had experience, what used to be the family, what used to be, for that matter, even clergy. Now, we have practitioners who say: 'Your time is up and you owe me 50 bucks, hold the phone.' They're remote. They have office hours, and they charge money."

At least the shaman lived in the community.

"At least that."

In the country, dairy farmers used to retire in their late 60s, sectioning off an acre or two of land and building a smaller house on it - big enough for an aging man and wife. The rest of the farm went over to an older son, who took up the relay of the generations. Nearby, his parents were available for counsel. They kept up a kitchen garden, repaired the occasional tractor or baler, baby-sat the grandchildren. If the parents fell sick with the infirmities of age, son and daughter-in-law were there to help. So were neighbors. They drove together to church on Sunday, kept up with gossip, went to township meetings and harangued the reeve.

Now, even in the country, such interconnections have withered. High interest rates, inflexible quota rules, the banditry of oil companies are killing the family farm as dead as any city neighborhood, as dead as an acid lake or clear-cut forest. Seeing this, some people despair. The litany of apocalypse can paralyze - a dysfunction against which Bookchin warns:

"Where I teach [at Ramapo College, in New Jersey], young people come up to me. I'm sort of a father figure to a lot of my students, and they, feel backed into a corner where they become stunned and apathetic. Much of the apathy that they feel is due to the fact that they are politically powerless, but also to the fact that they feel they have no way of averting total disaster. When you ask them, they say they are not going to have children."

It is a terrible, crippling loss of hope.

"I don't encourage that kind of view," Bookchin insists. "I'm not that fatalistic. I'm a great believer not only in the ability of humanity to destroy nature, but in the ability of nature to recover. I really have a good sense of that. This comes from a long background in biology. It's amazing, the resilience of the human body, of life. After the most disastrous volcanic events - Mount St. Helen's, for example - life comes back. It renews and renews. I have a great belief in the fecundity of nature. And while admittedly they can tear everything down, they really have the means to do so, it's going to take some doing yet, and I think there is time. I would not want to start out with a fatalistic view, which unfortunately all too many ecologists do, saying we only have five years. You know, you're not going to change anything in five years. I don't propose to paralyze young people."

To beat them into apathy?

"Right. I don't believe thermonuclear war is inevitable, or the environment hopelessly doomed."

Nature is Bookchin the teacher's own mentor, his inspiration, providing the principles on which his developing system of social ecology bases itself. "What I'm getting at basically, when I say social ecology, is the extension of certain ecological principles - not all - but certain key principles to the social structure of society. I think of society as an ecosystem, in the same way that a pond may be an ecosystem, and I believe that, without reducing one system to the other, certain principles are common to both, can unite both." He has singled out three basic principles: unity in diversity, spontaneity and complementarity (the absence of dominating hierarchies).

He writes:

"Our planet finds its unity in the diversity of species and in the richness, stability and interdependence this diversity imparts to the totality of life."

Paraphrased, Bookchin's watchword might be expressed: In diversity there is strength. The dynamic tension maintained between a variety of organisms in an ecosystem gives the system its resilience. The more forms it takes, the less likely life is to be wiped out by fire, flood or Ice Age climate changes.

The traditional mixed farm, producing a variety of crops, possessed the same strength. If hog prices were down, a good corn crop might take up the slack. An abundant maple sugar run could offset the loss of a Jersey calf. But the monocultural practice so common to modern "industrial farms" is less suited to resist adversity. With everything invested in hundreds upon hundreds of acres of a single uniform crop, a tiny shift in market price would mean disaster if the system were not supported by marketing boards, crop insurance and government intervention. Without the artificial protection of thousands of dollars worth of harsh chemical pesticides, the fragile monocultural crop could also be wiped out overnight by an invasion of insects attracted by the unnaturally rich feast spread before them.

The natural world is also spontaneous, in the sense that each species, and each individual within a species, seeks its own path of growth according to its own inner logic rather than one imposed from without. The sprouting plant pushes its way up towards the light, despite rock or concrete, cracking and heaving aside obstacles. Of the human ecosystem, Bookchin writes:

"Spontaneity is not mere impulse.... It is behavior, feeling and thought that is free of external constraint, of imposed restriction. It is self-controlled, internally controlled behavior, feeling and thought."

As T.E. Lawrence put it in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, explaining how his rag-tag army of Arab guerrillas managed to defeat the modern Turkish army of his day: "They did it because their spirits were equal with mine, and the contract voluntary."

The absence of hierarchy, however, seems to Bookchin to be the most important of the natural lessons the world has to teach. He writes in Toward an Ecological Society:

"Ecology recognizes no hierarchy on the level of the ecosystem. There are no "kings of the beasts" and no "lowly ants." These notions are the projections of our own social attitudes and relationships on the natural world. Virtually all that lives as part of the floral and faunal variety of an ecosystem plays its co-equal role in maintaining the balance and integrity of the whole."


"The attempt to dominate nature stems from the domination of human by human. To harmonize our relationship with the natural world presupposes the harmonization of the social world. Beyond the bare bones of a scientific discipline, natural ecology will have no meaning for us if we do not develop a social ecology."

In other words, a society whose members constantly try to dominate each other - labor versus management, business competitor versus competitor, men versus women - cannot help but feel it must "Conquer" nature, or be conquered by it. Like everything else in such a value system, the natural world becomes a thing to be fought with and controlled -- eventually to be destroyed. "I don't see society and nature as being at war with each other," Bookchin says. "And I don't see nature as being stingy. That's the Victorian notion of nature, as stingy."

A Malthusian notion?"

"Yes. It became very prevalent during the Victorian era. You had to pull nature's resources out of her bosom, as it were. They thought of nature as being scarce and not delivering, and you had to break your back to get whatever you wanted to survive. I don't see it that way. Nature is rich, and it also provides a groundwork for society. We can develop nature, we can enrich nature, but it is not a thing out there, to be dominated. We are part of it. We're never out of nature. This whole myth that we are detached from nature is ridiculous."

In Toward an Ecological Society, Bookchin asserts: "Human consciousness is the natural world rendered self-conscious," nature reflecting upon itself, using its own evolving "tool" of intelligence just as it uses fleetness of foot and thickness of fur, to develop and grow.

He is asked: Didn't the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin have similar ideas? He saw humanity as part of evolution, rather than something outside of it observing it happen. And he saw humanity as unique because not only was it part of evolution, it could actually influence the course of evolution consciously, which is something the dinosaurs, for example, couldn't do.

"I absolutely agree. The most ordinary example would be composting. We can create soil more rapidly than the ordinary natural processes can - good, solid topsoil. In nature it may take thousands of years to produce what we can bring about in a matter of months. We can make soil much more rapidly than nature does, and we can also destroy it much more rapidly. Faster than a volcano."

Part of nature, yet separate from it; influencing nature and being influenced by it. A relationship shot through with paradox and mystery.

"We can simplify nature, but we can never get out of nature. And when we simplify nature we simplify society as well. We make society, more bureaucratic and we make nature more inorganic. We can never cut the umbilical cord. We're rooted. We are natural in the simple sense that we are mammals and we are primates. We still have remaining in us, in our brains and in our cells, biochemically and neurologically, a great deal of our evolution - the very chemistry of earlier periods which are still at work in us. There is something we have to listen to inside ourselves that goes back perhaps millions of years, and affects us. So nature is a teacher, an arena, a groundwork and a sustenance."

Among the lessons taught by this source of sustenance are the need for variety, and the advantages of cooperation. Monocultures, whether agricultural or in society, are prone to disease. An unbroken expanse of corn, spruce trees or wheat is more prone to insect infestation than a mixed crop. A centralized, conformist society is more prone to breakdown under stress than a cosmopolitan one. Witness the Aztecs, attacked by the conquistadors.

"Life itself begins with symbiosis [mutually beneficial cooperation between species], not with ruthless competition as Darwin or Malthus might have claimed," says Bookchin. He points to numerous recent studies, such as Lynn Margulis' Origin of Eukaryotic Cells (1970), which indicate that the very body cells that make up living creatures may have come into being through the cooperation of symbiotic viruses and bacteria.

According to these theories, the various parts of the cells of higher organisms - the nucleus, nuclear membrane, cilia (hairlike filaments that permit motion), even the cell's methods of reproduction - were originally the attributes of separate organisms which banded together to create a new entity. Each of the cell's organelles (specialized structures) has its own DNA and is capable of self-reproduction, a fact that lends credence to such theories, Bookchin notes. "If this is correct, then right from the word go animal and plant life have their origins not in rivalry, the survival of the fittest: at the root of their development lies a mutualist, cooperative relationship. We also know that life creates the very forces that - according to the theories of natural selection - are supposed to select it. It was the oxygen given off by the earliest life forms that created the atmosphere in which we now live.

"This challenges the traditional image of evolution, of life pitted against the inorganic world, of society pitted against the natural world, including life itself. It's obvious that we can no longer go back to this very simplistic Darwinian notion of life as a struggle for existence in which there are inorganic or otherwise hostile forces that select the 'fittest.' Fit to what? We are not fit to live in the original atmosphere of this planet, which was anaerobic [devoid of oxygen]. All of these things lead to a very important ethical conclusion that symbiosis, not competition, seems to be the main driving force in evolution."

Bookchin is convinced, also, that there is 'a drive, or tendency" in evolution toward greater complexity, culminating in the almost unbelievable complexity of the human mind -the development of consciousness. The message is remarkably similar to Teilhard de Chardin's: Humanity is not only part of evolution but is its leading edge, imbued with the power to influence the very process that shapes it.

And "nature rendered self-conscious" has an innate tendency to cooperate, to work together. This tendency, Bookchin believes, has proven itself repeatedly in practice as well as theory, in hundreds of housing cooperatives, farm co-ops, credit unions, food co-ops, community gardens - in the direct democracy of the traditional rural New England town meetings. History, he says, is full of examples of free, morally strong individuals living in mutual recognition of each other's competence. "I studied Daniel Shays' rebellion of the farmers in western Massachusetts in 1786, just after the American Revolution. They had a whole cooperative world going for them there, among the frontier farmers, which was later destroyed by the Boston merchants. They had created their own forms of organization, direct democracy, their own forms of barter. And they [the forms] worked."

Bookchin, whose permanent home is in Burlington, Vermont, has himself taken part in town meetings and was influential in helping prompt the votes of several New England municipalities against nuclear development and nuclear weapons. He has been involved in numerous anti-nuclear groups, including the Clamshell Alliance, Shad and Ecology Action East, where his constant concern has been to guard against takeover of the movement by elites and "managerial radicals anxious to advance their stardom and personal fortunes" at the expense of selling out to the very bureaucracies they purport to oppose.

Bookchin's insistence on the "naturalness" of cooperation, of course, flies in the face of Social Darwinism - the rather ruthless set of excuses for competition favored by the classical capitalists of the Robber Baron era. It also runs counter to the more modem brand of deterministic economics that stamps out diversity in favor of corporate monopoly. Bookchin is obviously no capitalist.

Nor is he a socialist. He regards socialism, disdainfully, especially the Marxist variety, which he calls "nothing but state capitalism, one big bureaucracy: the Party." He elaborates: "As a kid I was precocious and read a lot. I remember at the age of 10 reading the Communist Manifesto and trying to figure out the phrase 'the spectre is haunting Europe.' I wanted to know what spectre meant, and I had to check out the dictionary for that word. But when I was about 15 years old I broke with Communism. I mean, why was it that this movement was always betraying people? [Stalin purging the old-line Bolsheviks, or signing pacts with Hitler.] You know, if it looks like a duck and it smells like a duck and it has feathers and quacks and flies like a duck, there's a strong chance that it's a duck. Look at Poland, at Hungary in 1956."

As Bookchin sees it, neither Marx nor Adam Smith has much in common with Mother Nature and, looking only at the surface, it seems easy to find others who would agree with him, at least in spirit: Teilhard de Chardin for example, or proponents of the new school of "sociobiology" launched by E.O. Wilson in the early 1970s. But it would be dangerous to make too hasty a synthesis. Teilhard was a Catholic priest, while Bookchin does not believe in any deity. Bookchin finds his inspiration in nature, but can't go along with Wilson's sociobiology (which tends to regard the natural world in terms of systems engineering and reduce human society to mechanistic models) because it "simplifies everything down to instinct, impulse, the 'morality of the gene,' and destroys spontaneity."

He is his own man and defines his intellectual pedigree with rigor: "I could call myself a Marxist and be very popular," he says. "It's the same with other terms. You can use the title 'socialist' and be all over the map, or 'liberal.' They don't mean anything any more. But with the word 'anarchist' you have to take a stand. You uncompromisingly believe in liberty. The word has an uncompromising quality in an age when people give up their principles too easily."

The vagueness of "pop theorists" - who try to be all things to all men by emphasizing the sometimes tenuous links between sharply differing viewpoints - disgusts him. In Toward an Ecological Society, he bemoans the North American "lack of theoretical insight" which may yet reduce the ecology movement to the level of mere environmental engineering, a fascination with solar gadgetry," and leave it vulnerable to cooption by industry. The fact that oil companies have purchased majority control of most of the manufacturers of photovoltaic cells has not escaped his notice.

What counts is the extent to which appearance can so easily replace reality in the American mind. Rebellion, too, can become mere theatre when it lacks the substance of knowledge, theory and wisdom.... Fast food is not the only attribute of the American spirit; its ideological counterpart is fast politics, indeed fast radicalism. The '60s were plagued by feverish turns in ideological fads and cultural fashions that swept through the New Left and the counterculture with dazzling rapidity. Movements leapfrogged over entire eras of historical experience and theoretical development with an arrogant indifference to the labors of the past, abandoning anarchism for Marxism, machismo militancy for feminism, communal living for privatism, sexual promiscuity for monogamy, rock music for disco, only to revert again to new libertarian fads, sado-masochism, singles' bars, punk rock in criss-crossing patterns that more closely resemble the scrawl of an infant than the decipherable messages of maturing individuals.

Among the scrawlers, Bookchin places the French socialist and author of Ecology as Politics, Andre Gorz, whose "crude eclecticism" strikes him as absurd, and writers like Population Bomb author Paul Erlich, who sees population control as the solution to every problem:

There is something obscene about the fact that an effect, "population growth," is being given primacy in the ecological crisis by a nation which has little more than seven per cent of the world's population, wastefully devours more than 50 per cent of the world's resources and is currently [the essay was written during the Vietnam War] engaged in the depopulation of an oriental people that has lived for centuries in sensitive balance with its environment.

Bookchin is an ecologist, but stands clearly in the intellectual tradition of anarchists Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Peter Kropotkin (a tradition shared, though somewhat less outspokenly, by Henry David Thoreau, Aldous Huxley and India's Mahatma Gandhi). He is not the anarchist of the cartoon panels - the wild-eyed, bearded man in sandals pitching bombs - but the kind of anarchist the ancient Greeks had in mind when they coined the word, the kind the ecology movement in France - Les Vertes [the Greens] - looks to for inspiration. "In ancient Greek, archon meant ruler," Bookchin explains. "Anarchy meant the absence of the ruler, literally no ruler. There were times when you had anarchy in ancient Greece simply because you didn't have an archon. You had direct democracy instead."

Bookchin considers that Athens in its glory, where all citizens of the polis took part in its governing assemblies, rather than entrust their business to easily corrupted representatives, was such a society. Many of the Greens in France - who find the centralized, power-seeking orientation of the traditional Leftist parties unpalatable - are also anarchists. "Anarchy does not mean chaos," says Bookchin. "It means the absence of hierarchy, of domination."

A state, as it were, of nature.

A hint of mischief enters his voice: -It's also a word that tends to tweak people's noses and make them think - if they're willing to think. There are only two ways to respond to the word. You either go beyond mere mechanical or stereotyped thinking and start to be creative, or you react with kneejerk phrases and stay right where you were."

Morton Shulman can hardly contain his mirth, turning in his swivel chair, alternately facing Bookchin and the studio audience of realtors.

Shulman - When the anarchists of the world come into their own, what would you do about housing?

Bookchin - First of all, we wouldn't make the decision. The people would make the decision.

Shulman - Ah! The people. Not these people though? (gestures to audience of realtors)

Bookchin - Oh, absolutely not.

Shulman - The real people! (audience laughter, Shulman laughter)

Bookchin - The real people who are, suffering today and living on the streets of various cities.

Shulman - The poor, the ignorant.

Bookchin - They're not ignorant They have more perception than those who have a high greed level.

Shulman (laughs, audience laughs - All right, well take the poor living in the streets and put them in...

Bookchin -Not just the poor. It's the middle class that I'm deeply concerned about.

Shulman -And what changes would you have these poor, intelligent people make.... What would you change if, God forbid, you people should come to power? (general laughter)

Bookchin - To begin with, I think we'd tackle the banks. I think we'd turn the banks over to the people.

Shulman - The banks!?

Bookchin - Those who set the interest rates and have one of the highest greed levels...

Shulman (laughter) - You'd sack the banks! Ha, ha, ha! You'd sack the banks. Then we'd come to the housing crisis.

Bookchin - Not sack the banks. Why make it so dramatic? Just take them over...

Shulman - Do you not understand that we're in a competitive world? If the banks don't give competitive interest, the people who have money to loan will go elsewhere. You know this pie-in-the-sky nonsense is just that. It's nonsense.

Bookchin - It's not pie-in-the-sky. You know right now we have a problem where people are being dispossessed of homes, where people are beginning to live on streets.

Shulman - So give me a practical answer. Don't say take over the banks. That doesn't solve anything. Who really owns the banks anyway?

Bookchin - I'm giving you a practical answer. A very fine theorist came out with the idea that there should be people's banks, that people should invest in the banks and put their income into...

Shulman - Like the Caisses Populaires. They go flat broke with great rapidity. We have people's banks in Quebec. They're all in trouble.

At this point another panelist, publisher James Lorimer, cannot contain himself. He breaks in:

Lorimer - That's not true Morty.

Shulman -At least some of them are in trouble.

Lorimer - Yes. And there are credit unions all across Canada and they are much more reasonable in terms of the interest rates policy .... The banks, who we all know are making much, much, much too much money these days, could be asked and forced by the federal government as a condition of doing business to make available low-interest-rate loans for housing purposes, for mortgages. That kind of idea's been discussed. It's a reasonable idea.

Shulman - All right. We've taken over the banks. The people reign at the banks. What are you going to do with the housing problem?

Bookchin - At that particular point we start developing various popular councils, the equivalent of our city councils, . .

Shulman - Popular councils?

Bookchin - Yes, but not politicians, not people who are out to speculate. I would like to think that we could educate one another and try in some way to start dealing with our problems....

Shulman (with suspicion) - Who would select these popular councils?

Bookchin - The people.

Shulman - The people? Of course, (mockingly) the people. Would they vote for...

Bookchin - What a terrible notion! We should have a democracy for the corporations?

Shulman -Wait a minute. I have some difficulty taking you seriously, and I'm not quite sure why you're here (audience laughter). Do you have any practical (Shulman laughs), do you have any practical suggestions? I mean you're the next step beyond James Lorimer! He at least has got his feet somewhere near the ground. You're up in (laughs gulpingly), in the...

Bookchin - Up where the thermonuclear cloud is...

Shulman (laughing) - Exactly! Exactly! (more laughs)

Bookchin - I'm really unrealistic.

Shulman - Do you have any practical suggestions?

Bookchin - Very practical suggestions. Let's start out, if we're going to work with a money economy, with popular banks, banks run by the people. Credit unions would be one form. Interest rates would be controlled, we'd get rid of a lot of developers (turns to audience). No hard feelings folks, I wish you all well. And then we'd redesign houses, cheapen them, there are all kinds of schemes, not scams, that could change the whole landscape...

Shulman - Are you poor?

Bookchin - I? I think I'm in the lower middle class.

Shulman - Have you ever had to run a business?

Bookchin - Have I run a business or have I had responsibilities similar to running a business?

Shulman - What does that mean?

Bookchin - Trade unions (Shulman laughs). Oh yes, that's big business today.

Shulman - Your ideas have been tried in one country I've visited, but there's a terrible housing problem in Moscow (loud prolonged applause from the audience).

Bookchin (struggling to be heard over the noise) - You think I identify? Hold it, hold it! In Moscow you're talking of Big Government and you know it. So let's not be demagogic.

Shulman - I thought you were being that.

Bookchin - That's pure demagoguery to infer from Moscow what kind of... I couldn't go into the Eastern Zone, although most people around here (gestures toward the audience) could, because I would expect to be thrown in prison as an anarchist. But you could go there as a capitalist and they'd love you.

Shulman (still laughing) - Tell me about a country, or a time in life, in the history of man, ever, where your ideas have ever been put into practice successfully?

Lorimer - Let me point to an example in Montreal. There was a neighborhood in Montreal in which a neighborhood organization - they didn't call them people's councils, they called them neighborhood organizations - took over a big chunk of land. They did it because CMHC [Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation) was forced to finance it by a combination of high- and low-level political pressure, and they're rebuilding the neighborhood, producing...

Bookchin -Ill give you 511 East 11th Street [in New York]. Are you familiar with that?

The debate swings back and forth, now including, now excluding the other panelists. Finally, Shulman moves to end the discussion, preparatory to the station break.

Shulman - Mr. Bookchin, I read your book. What do you see...

Bookchin - Which book are you talking about? I wrote nine.

Shulman (laughing) - How many copies of your books sell?

Bookchin -I don't know. I don't keep track.

Shulman (laughing mockingly) -You have a terrible time getting it. Nobody carries it. (audience laughter) But anyway (more laughs), what is your view of the ideal community?

Bookchin(impatient) - My solution is a very practical one, one that I've seen actually executed. I've been down in the South Bronx, I've been down in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, all of New York City. I have seen people, Hispanics, many of them even untrained to begin with, build their own homes out of completely gutted buildings. They've utilized sweat equity, they've done it at the most reasonable possible prices, they've shared these homes cooperatively and then on top of that, they have put up solar collectors and cut down their electric bills by 40 per cent! In New York City! (his voice rises in anger) I'm not talking of some remote Utopia on the top of a mushroom cloud. Secondly, they've opened up their own gardens on wasteland and cultivated their own food. They've created a deep sense of community and integration and I submit to you right now, if you're familiar with anything that's going on in New York, where 40 per cent of the housing is virtually gutted, this is the most promising development - it's outside of speculation and all the most carnivorous type of real estate dealing that I've ever seen - the most promising development in the direction of trying to give housing to people. And let me say one last thing, Morty. If you want to be serious about 'Gimme shelter,' don't spend all your time assessing how to make a profit, because that's what this program is really all about!

Shulman (no longer coolly derisive, but stung, angry) - What this program is about is giving people reasonable housing, which they've got a fairer chance of getting here in Toronto than in your gutter in New York! (He spins his swivel chair away from the desk, his back to Bookchin.) We'll be right back.

There is a tense silence in the audience as the station break begins. The panel, too, is silent. Seconds pass. Then Bookchin breaks the ice, grinning good-naturedly.

Bookchin -- You've got the last word.

The mellow voice of the program's announcer is heard again: "The Shulman File" will return in a moment.

A few people in the audience get up to leave, but others remain silent in their seats, looking at the stage.

Shulman stays right where he was.

Thomas Fawlick is an associate editor of Harrowsmith magazine.


By Murray Bookchin:

Toward an Ecological Society
Black Rose Books, Montreal

Our Synthetic Environment
Peter Smith,
Magnolia, Massachusetts

The Limits of the City
Harper & Row, New York

The Ecology of Freedom
Cheshire Books
Palo Alto, California

Spanish Anarchists
Harper & Row, New York

Post-Scarcity Anarchism
Black Rose Books, Montreal


[Home]               [About Us]               [Contact Us]               [Other Links]               [Critics Corner]